City to release progress reports with new formula, lower grades

Tomorrow, when the city releases its progress reports for elementary and middle schools, parents will begin the annual rite of deciphering their schools’ report cards. But this year the tradition will be complicated by a new formula and, for many schools, lower grades.

The city is trying to accomplish several goals at once: It is hoping to improve the methods it uses to measure student progress and reduce the wild fluctuation and inflation of grades that has marked past years’ progress reports. At the same time, city officials hope to convince parents, teachers and principals that the grades are meaningful, especially in light of this year’s sharp drop in test scores across the city.

Last year, the city gave 84 percent of elementary and middle schools A’s, while 13 percent received a B, and 2 percent received a C. Just five schools were given D’s, and two were given F’s. Those grades were much higher than the year before, when 38 percent of schools were given an A. In 2007, when the reports were first issued, 23 percent received that rating.

For this year’s progress reports, the city is making several big changes to how the grades are calculated. First, it is modifying how the city calculates students’ progress. In the past, a significant percentage of a school’s grade  — 85 percent for elementary and middle schools — was based on student performance on state math and reading scores. So when test scores went up throughout the city in 2009 (reflecting a statewide trend), the grades soared on progress reports.

This year the city is doing something different. It is comparing the progress of each student to other students who began the school year performing at the same level.

In other words, students who scored a level 3 on the math exam in 2009 will have their 2010 math scores judged against other students who scored similarly the year before. If one student ends the year with a higher score than another student who started at the same place, the first student’s school will receive more credit.

“It’s still kid to kid, but kid to kids who started at the same place,” Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s deputy chancellor for accountability, told WNYC’s Beth Fertig. “It’s a much more precise measure.”

The new formula is based on Colorado’s “growth model” for measuring student progress.

In addition, the city is distributing progress report grades across a curve for the first time. Only a quarter of schools will be granted A’s, and roughly two-thirds will receive either a B or C.

Knowing that state education officials planned to make the tests more difficult to pass, the city announced the curve in January. But when the drop in test scores was more severe than the city had anticipated, officials decided to add a floor to how far schools’ progress report grades can fall.

Under this year’s curve, 15 percent of schools are slated to receive the lowest two grades. High stakes are attached to the progress report grades. Grades of D or F, as well as a string of three C’s in a row, trigger scrutiny from the city, which can frequently lead to a school being restructured or closed.

Critics of the school accountability system who charge that the reports rely too heavily on the state exams are not likely to be assuaged by the changes. Students’ scores on the standardized tests still account for 85 percent of a school’s total grade. The rest is determined by reviews of the school environment and the results of surveys given to students, parents and teachers.

Some principals also remain wary of how their students’ progress is compared to that of students at other schools. The city has historically assigned schools “peer groups” for the purpose of comparison, and some principals have complained that those groups of schools are not as similar as the city says.

The city is also making a number of smaller changes to this year’s progress report grading. For middle schools, a pilot program will factor students’ class grades into schools’ progress reports, as the city does for high school report cards.

And schools will be given more credit this year for closing the performance gap between their general education students, their special education students, and those learning English. Also for the first time this year, schools in the city’s District 75 program, which serves the most severely disabled students, will also receive progress reports.

High schools are expected to receive their progress reports in November. The city is not changing how high school grades will be calculated this year.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”